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Henry VIII and First Totalitarian State

Henry VIII And First Totalitarian State

While continental thinkers groped their way through the troubles of the Reformation toward the idea of an autonomous, secularized polity, England entered the age of Reformation with a polity that was autonomous and centralized enough to reform the church by transforming it into an adjunct of the secularized commonwealth.

In the wake of the Norman Conquest, and aided by geographical isolation, there had grown a national society, politically articulated and represented in Lords and Commons, institutionally unified through royal administration, courts, and common law. By the time of the Tudors, England had become “in fact,” that is, in sen­timent and institutions, a closed national polity ready to crown this development by the idea of its autonomous existence when the emergency should arise.

The pathos of this polity found its illuminating expression when Henry VIII addressed his Parliament in George Ferrers’s case (1543):

“We be informed by our Judges that we at no time stand so highly in our estate royal as in the time of Parliament, wherein we as head and you as members are conjoined and knit together into one body politic, so as whatsoever offence or injury (during that time) is offered to the meanest member of the House is to be judged as done against our person and the whole Court of Parliament.”

The well-knit body politic of king and Par­liament is the unquestioned governing authority of England: the king being enhanced in his royal estate when he participates in the representation of the realm, the Parliament participating in the privileges of majesty when it functions as the king’s high court. The unquestioned existence of the polity and its institutions must be presupposed as a fundamental fact when we approach the evolution of English politics in the age of Reformation. It is the key to understanding otherwise baffling ideas and attitudes.

When we reflect, for instance, on the crazy sequence of Henrician almost Catholic supremacy, Edwardian Lutheran reformism, Marian Cath­olic reaction, and Elizabethan settlement, all within a generation, we begin to wonder what sort of people these English are who switch dogmas every ten years along with their kings, and who do not respond to the secularization of their church for scandalous reasons with a major civil war and the ejection of the dynasty.

A Byzantine England?

Are the English perhaps a particularly abject, Byzantine race? It would be unfair to answer the question in the affirmative without qualifi­cations. To be sure, there is a streak of genuine Byzantinism in the English pattern of political conduct. The smelly and sticky details in the performance of Henry’s bishops and lawyers — especially in view of the royal burlesque, of this barbaric mixture of foul thievery, wenching, vandalism, cruelty, and bloody tyranny with political astuteness, legal rites, dignity, majesty, and humanistic charm — amply justify the judgment. Nevertheless, we are not dealing with a case of abject submissiveness under a despot — the Byzantinism of Tudor society was strongly tempered by bribery.

Henry fortified his ecclesiastical polity by dis­tributing confiscated monastic lands (through free gifts or nominal sales) to a rather broad stratum of society, numbering about one thousand persons, fifteen peers and thirty commoners receiving grants with a yearly value of more than two hundred pounds. A substantial new upper class, thus, was engaged with its material inter­ests in the Supremacy. And the Marian return to Catholicism again was purchased by leaving the holders of abbey lands in safe posses­sion.

Obviously, it would be grossly inappropriate to approach the problems of the English Reformation with categories taken from the environment of Luther or Calvin. The curious switches of church policy from reign to reign lose much of their strangeness if we realize that English society had so far advanced in secularization of sentiment that the spiritual problems involved were hardly ex­perienced as such except by politically powerless individuals and small groups. The representative ruling class was ready to sell the church for a good price, and even to take it back provided that it could keep the price, too.

While the formal secularization of the church through the Su­premacy should not be underrated as an event in itself, it must be placed in the context of social processes in a polity that was already secularized in substance. As far as the structure of the polity is concerned, we can now more clearly understand the social implications of the previously quoted remark of the king in Ferrers’s case. The “body politic” of king and Parliament was indeed closely knit; and Henry had contributed materially to conjoining and knitting it even more closely together.

Instead of being used for educational purposes and poor relief, the church plunder had been appropriated by the king to himself, his servants, and his supporters; the community of robbery had created a community of interests that at the moment served the king’s purposes well. Even more important, however, was the long-range effect of this astute method of “conjoining” the representative powers of the realm; for the newly created and enriched social stratum became the nucleus of the forces that, in the constitutional struggle of the seventeenth century, were the carriers of the Revolution and ultimately shifted the power of the polity toward the Parliament.

At the opening of the sixteenth century, thus, the English polity had achieved a high degree of secularized, world-immanent exis­tence on the level of sentiments and institutions. In the reign of Henry VIII, under double pressure from the royal marital affairs and the continental Reformation, the process of closing and secu­larizing the existence of the polity suddenly moved to the level of consciousness.

The Unmysterious English National Character

When we speak of consciousness we do not mean a high degree of intellectual clarity. On the contrary, a style of political thought begins to form in which an unrivaled sense for the concrete in human and legal relations is combined with an almost pathological fear of facing issues on the level of principles. The style is specifically English; and since, by its parochial nature, it prevents a generally communicable expression of problems, it has become the greatest obstacle to an understanding of English politics for anybody who has not grown up on the island. Nevertheless, there is no sense in attributing this peculiar style to some mystery of the English “national character.” It is the quite unmysterious result of the factors that historically contributed to its formation.

The geographically and civilizationally marginal situation of En­gland on an island had produced this style, under both its positive and its negative aspects. The sheltered existence of the centralized polity had made possible the national style of treating political questions in the legal terms of statutes and decisions; and the same sheltered isolation had minimized English participation in the great European debate of the high Middle Ages so that a treatment of pol­itics in terms of metaphysical principles had never been a national concern. And, finally, we must take into account that England entered its period of continuous political debate precisely at the time when the antiphilosophism of humanists and reformers had ruined the standards of political theorizing.

When we look at the politically astute but intellectually muddled legislation of Henry VIII in matters of church and faith, and when we see the insouciance with which the king in Parliament defines the dogma of transubstantiation for his subjects, we may assume that the problems of the corpus mysticum, of the spiritual substance of the church, of sacerdotium and magisterium were beyond the intellectual grasp of the ruling group of England.

Isolated remarks show that indi­viduals here and there were uneasily aware of the implications of Supremacy, but this occasional awareness found no representative expression. Even the great Hooker, at the end of the century, had not yet understood the connection between secularization and the destruction of spiritual freedom. Unpropitious as the circumstances were, the continuity of En­glish political thought begins under Henry VIII. In the present con­text we shall deal with the first great idea that was fully developed before the end of the century through Hooker, that is, the idea of the commonwealth. In the later part of Elizabeth’s reign, the evolution of the commonwealth idea overlaps with the beginnings of the constitutional struggle between king and Parliament.

The Closure of the Commonwealth

The idea of the commonwealth, as it became articulate during the sixteenth century, is the idea of the closed, secularized, autonomous polity. In order to understand the implications of the idea, we must briefly enumerate the various aspects of closure and secularization. By closure is meant jurisdictional independence from empire and papacy.

Jurisdictional independence from the empire could be formalized very simply through a declaration enunciating the principle of imperator in regno suo, which had become current in the Middle Ages. The jurisdictional independence from the papacy was a more complicated matter. Here we have to distinguish between the autonomy of the Ecclesia Anglicana, achieved by submitting its canonical legislation to the consent of the king; and the actual secularization of spiritual power, achieved by transferring the infallible authority in matters of faith to the king in Parliament.

The first group of measures, advancing Anglicanism, means no more than a decentralization of church government according to national regions. The second step, the schismatic break, destroys the institutions that embody the universality of the church; but the situation created by this measure did not differ substantially from the situation that existed in Christianity through the schism between Western and Eastern churches. The third step, consummated through the Act for Submission of the Clergy (23 Henry VIII, c.19), of 1534, is a real attack on the church because it abolishes its self-government.

And only the fourth step [The Act of Supremacy] destroys the spiritual substance of the church by making the symbols of faith a matter of secular declaration. Only this fourth step establishes what today we call a totalitarian government. This last proposition, however, must be qualified by the reminder that the king and his advisers did not know what they were doing and that, when the consequences of totalitarianism began to show, the result was a formidable constitutional struggle.

Nevertheless, we must realize that the English development of the sixteenth century was not simply an assertion of national independence, and that it was considerably more than a “break with Rome.” It entailed, indeed, the establishment of the first totalitarian government, foreshadowing the possibilities of a future when the creed promulgated by the government would have become anti-Christian.

From the numerous enactments that have a bearing on the clo­sure of the commonwealth, we shall select only a few passages in which the idea of the autonomous polity receives explicit formu­lation. The Act in Restraint of Appeals (24 Henry VIII, c. 12), of 1533, opens with the declaration:

“By divers sundry old authentic histories and chronicles it is manifestly declared and expressed that this realm of England is an empire, and so hath been accepted in the world, governed by one Supreme Head and King having the dignity and royal estate of the imperial Crown of the same, unto whom a body politic, compact of all sorts and degrees of people divided in terms and by names of Spirituality and Temporalty, be bounden and owe to bear next to God a natural and humble obedience.”

The declaration of England as an empire, as we have indicated, does no more than resume the idea of the imperator in regno suo; the style of imperator had been claimed for the first time by Edward I in the thirteenth century.

In the Act in Restraint of Appeals it is the preliminary to the enactment that no appeal can lie from an English court, spiritual or temporal, to a foreign higher instance; and that no decision rendered by a foreign authority in contravention of this act can be enforced by an English court, and in particular not by English “prelates, pastors, ministers and curates.” Behind this sudden concern about appeal to “foreign princes and poten­tates” lies the king’s secret marriage with Anne Boleyn in January 1533. While the act cuts off the embarrassing appeals to Rome, it does not impair the spiritual substance of the Ecclesia Anglicana; the autonomy of the “Spirituality” remains untouched — barring of course the king’s prodding for a favorable decision in his marital affairs.

The Act of Supremacy and Spiritual Authority

The Act of Supremacy (26 Henry VIII, c. I), of 1534, adds the headship of the Church of England to the imperial crown:

“The King our Sovereign Lord, his heirs and successors kings of this realm, shall be taken, accepted and reputed the only Supreme Head in earth of the Church of England called Anglicana Ecclesia, and shall have and enjoy annexed and united to the imperial Crown of this realm as well the title and style thereof, as all honours, dignities, etc.”

The function implies the jurisdiction “to visit, repress, redress, reform, order, correct, restrain, and amend all such errors, heresies, abuses, offences, contempts and enormities whatsoever they be” that come within spiritual authority and jurisdiction.”

The language of the act is comprehensive but vague. That it actually implied the secularization of the Church of England is convincingly shown by later enactments. The act extinguishing the authority of the Bishop of Rome, of 1536, for instance, admirably shows the new atmosphere as well as the precise nature of the new headship. The act is directed against “the pretended power and usurped authority of the Bishop of Rome, by some called the Pope”; and it assumes spiritual authority in pronouncing not only on the pope’s ambitions and tyranny but also on his nefariousness in “excluding Christ out of his kingdom” and seducing English subjects “unto superstitious and erroneous opinions” to the great damage of their souls.

And the Statute of Six Articles, “abolishing diversity in Opinions,” of 1539, finally, establishes through king in Parliament the correct view of transubstantiation in terms of “real presence.” With this interven­tion in matters of dogma begins something like an opera buffa of infallibility: the First Prayer Book, of 1549, bent the sacrament of the altar more in the Lutheran direction; the revised Prayer Book, of 1552, went more in the direction of Zwingli; the Elizabethan Prayer Book, of 1559, achieved a diplomatic compromise.

Property Seizure and Ceremonial Confession

The Supremacy was not concerned only with such questions as independence from the bishop of Rome and the secularization of the Church of England; of equal, if not greater, importance was the dissolution of the monasteries and the appropriation of abbey lands and other property for secular purposes.

The techniques employed in this vast campaign of confiscation are of considerable value for understanding the general atmosphere in the secularized polity. There are preserved “confessions” by the monks whose houses were dissolved. A few passages from the confession concerning St. Andrew’s Priory in Northampton, of 1537, signed by the prior, the subprior, and eleven brethren, will illustrate the problem.

The con­fessing monks address themselves to the king and assure him that they are “stirred by the grief of our conscience unto great contrition for the manifold negligence, enormities, and abuses” committed “under the pretence and shadow of perfect religion.” They confess “voluntarily and only by our proper conscience compelled” that they and their predecessors have never used the revenue of the priory for the purposes for which it was destined but:

“Taking on us the habit or outward vesture of the said rule (of Saint Benedict) only to the intent to lead our lives in an idle quietness and not in virtuous exercise, in a stately estimation and not in obedient humility, have under the shadow or color of the said rule and habit vainly, detestably, and also ungodly employed, yea rather devoured, the yearly revenues . . . in continual ingurgitations and farcings of our carayne bodies, and of others, the supporters of our voluptuous and carnal appetite, with other vain and ungodly expenses, to the manifest subversion of devotion and cleanness of living, and to the most notable slander of Christ’s holy Evangel.”

Moreover, they have corrupted the simple and pure minds of the king’s subjects, “steering them with all persuasions, engines, and policy, to dead images and counterfeit relics for our damnable lucre.” But now they admit their “most horrible abominations and execrable persuasions of your Grace’s people to detestable errors, and our long covered hypocrisy cloaked with feigned sanctity”; they ponder them con­tinually in their sorrowful hearts; they perceive the bottomless gulf of everlasting fire ready to devour them; they are constrained by the intolerable anguish of their conscience; they prostrate themselves at the king’s noble feet and crave his pardon.

In order that such horrors will never happen again in the monastery, finally, they be­seech the king “graciously to accept our free gifts without coercion, persuasion, or procurement of any creature living other than of our voluntary free will,” offering the possessions and the rights of their priory to dispose of them at his discretion.1 The Moscow trials and the trials of churchmen in the Soviet satel­lite states have trained our ear for the overtones of “confessions.” The abject self-accusations of the monks of St. Andrew’s Priory have the authentic ring of the ceremonial confessions exacted by totalitarian governments.

The Literary Chorus

We should like to warn the reader that the preceding section has not given a historical survey of enactments concerning the Church of England in the sixteenth century. We have selected only a very few decisive statutes that were apt to illustrate the commonwealth idea. Nothing could be gained for our study of the typical features, for instance, by going into the details of the Six Articles, or by dwelling on the Ten Articles of Henry, or the Forty-Two Articles of Edward VI, or the Thirty-Nine Articles of Elizabeth — except additional proof that the Tudor mess was truly gorgeous.

The idea of the commonwealth as a closed, world-immanent, secularized polity has become clear. The church is an “aspect” of the commonwealth; and the symbols of faith are defined by the king in Parliament. Nonrecognition of royal supremacy in matters of faith is high trea­son. A dangerous development that began in the thirteenth century has now reached its grotesque end.

Heresy and Treason become the Same Thing

At the core of the Inquisition’s persecution of heretics had been the doctrine, invented by the lawyer Pope Innocent III, that heresy was high treason against God and must be punished in the same manner as high treason against political authority; now doubts about the spiritual infallibility of the government have become heresy and are counted as temporal high treason.

The problem in itself is clear. Hence, we shall not go into details of the enormous literature that was provoked by the Supremacy. It is, according to the capacities of the authors, learned, serious, persuasive, vehement, and bitter, but intellectually it is undis­tinguished.

Let us only characterize the positions that, from the nature of the problem, had to be represented. On the one side there would be the partisans of the Supremacy. On the other side, there would have to be the partisans of spiritual autonomy, differentiated according to the various religious divisions and subdivisions. This fundamental pattern would, then, suffer some distortion through the fact that partisans of spiritual autonomy would also support on occasion the position of the king when, and as long as, they believed that the king was on the side of their peculiar brand of reformation.

On the whole, we may say that Catholics such as More, Cardinal Pole, and Cardinal Allen had a clearer view of the problem than others — not because they were Catholics but because anybody who had a clearer view and some personal integrity probably would be forced to the Catholic side in the dilemma.  And a clearness of sim­plicity was to be found at the opposite extreme where a lawyer such as Christopher Saint Germain roundly identified realm and church and accorded to the king in Parliament the right of expounding Scripture with binding force for the people; or where Sir Thomas Smith laid down the rule: “The Parliament legitimateth bastards, establisheth forms of religion, altereth weights and measures.”2

The spiritually concerned Protestants inevitably cut the sorri­est figure because they were caught between their rejection of Catholicism and the frustration of their aspirations through the Elizabethan settlement; to be for and against the Supremacy at the same time was, indeed, a difficult position. The term Puritan has its origin in this peculiar situation. It seems to have been used for the first time in 1567, in the course of the vestiarian controversy; it probably originated among the separatists in order to characterize the thoroughness of their reform, was then used by the partisans of Supremacy with slanderous intention against all reforming groups, and was gradually accepted as a designation for all those who wished to purify the established church according to some discipline de­rived from Calvinism.3

Replacing the Pope with a Plurality of Popes

The intellectual level of this whole body of literature, as we have said, was not very high. Nevertheless, after two generations, there emerged something like a “sense of the meeting” — if we may apply this phrase to the bitter controversy. While everybody still insisted that he himself was just plain right, everyone had become aware at last that something was fundamentally wrong when the other fellow wanted to be just plain right, too.

The invective sharpened to the mutual accusation of popery. To be sure, the pope himself still held a place of distinction as the pestilent idol and the An­tichrist; but before the end of the century the partisans on the other side had, in one form or another, called each other “little popes” all round.

Through the fracas about jurisdictions of ecclesiastical courts, payments and appeals to Rome, surplices and squares, tak­ing the sacrament in one or two forms, taking it kneeling or stand­ing, ecclesiastical supremacy of the king and alliances of Catholics with Spain, episcopal, presbyterian, and congregational organization, altars, images, relics, organs, and Sabbatarian holiness — the essential point began to dawn on the happy warriors: that they could not replace the pope by Scripture but only by a plurality of popes.

The problem of institutionalizing the spirit in society was still with them; the rejection of the universal authority in matters of faith had resulted in a multiplicity of particular authorities. Even the gentlemanly opportunists who occupied episcopal thrones under Elizabeth began to understand that the spiritual substance of the church was no joke. Under the pressure of the younger generation of Puritans, of Cartwright and Travers, they found it increasingly difficult to maintain order in their church with no other authority than that of servants of the crown; and toward the end of the century the trend becomes noticeable of claiming an authority jure divino for the bishops of the establishment.

After 1570 it became increasingly clear that the Supremacy was seriously threatened by the Puritan movement. Disciplinarian min­isters within the established church grew in numbers, presbyterian classes were formed, and the movement spilled over into congrega­tional separatism. The strength of the movement lay in its spiritual seriousness; the demands for disciplinarian reform were carried by the consciousness that a church was no church when its spiritual substance was determined by the civil government. Against this dangerous enemy was directed the great work of Richard Hooker in defense of Supremacy. 4



1. All quotations are from the reprint of the confession in J. R. Tanner, Tudor Constitutional Documents, 2d ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1930), 89 ff.

2. More’s Apology was published in 1533. It is an answer to Saint Germain’s Treatise concerning the division between the spiritualtie and temporaltie (ca. 1532). Cardinal Pole’s Pro ecclesiasticae unitatis defensione was published in 1536, Car­dinal Allen’s Apology in 1581, and his Defence of English Catholics in 1584. Sir Thomas Smith’s De republica Anglorum was published posthumously in 1583. For a careful presentation of the vast Tudor literature the reader should refer to Allen’s History of Political Thought and for an even more detailed study of the rise of Puritanism to M. M. Knappen’s Tudor Puritanism (Chicago, 1939).

3. See on this question Knappen, Tudor Puritanism, 488f.

4. Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, in Works, ed. John Keble, 7th ed., rev. R. W. Church and F. Paget (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1888), vols. 1-2. The first four books of Ecclesiastical Polity were published in 1594 and the fifth book in 1599. After Hooker’s death, two Puritan ministers called at his home and, apparently with connivance of Hooker’s widow, destroyed the unpublished remaining three books. Books VI-VIII in their present form go back to rough drafts of the manuscript. A critical edition of book VIII has been edited by R. A. Houk (New York: Columbia University Press, 1931).

The publication of Ecclesiastical Polity provoked an answer by an anonymous author (whose identity Hooker has not revealed but seems to have guessed) under the title A Christian Letter of Certaine English Protestants, 1599. There is extant a copy of the Christian Letter with Hooker’s marginal notes; almost all of the annotations are published in Keble’s edition of the Works. The Christian Letter with the notes is reprinted in R. Bayne’s edition of the fifth book of Ecclesiastical Polity, 1902. New edition: The Folger Library Edition of the Works of Richard Hooker, W. Speed Hill, gen. ed., 6 vols. (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1977-  ). Student’s edition: Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity: Preface, Book I, Book VII, ed. A. S. McGoode (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

The anonymous Christian Letter was answered, after Hooker’s death, by William Covell in his Just and Temperate Defence of the Five Books of Ecclesiastical Policie (London, 1603). A brief but excellent study of Hooker is to be found in Alexander Passerin d’Entrèves, The Medieval Contribution to Political Thought (London: Oxford University Press, 1939); see also the same author’s Riccardo Hooker: Contributo alia teoria e alia atoria del diritto naturale (Turin: Instituto giuridico della R. Università, 1932).


This excerpt is from History of Political Ideas (Volume V): Religion and the Rise of Modernity (Collected Works of Eric Voegelin 23)( Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1998)

Eric VoegelinEric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin (1901-85) was a German-born American Political Philosopher. He was born in Cologne and educated in Political Science at the University of Vienna, at which he became Associate Professor of Political Science. In 1938 he and his wife fled from the Nazi forces which had entered Vienna and emigrated to the United States, where they became citizens in 1944. He spent most of his academic career at the University of Notre Dame, Louisiana State University, the University of Munich and the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. More information about him can be found under the Eric Voegelin tab on this website.

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